For a country whose workers prefer not to inconvenience their colleagues by taking a vacation, Japan does remarkably well when it comes to public holidays: 15 a year. Compare that with a paltry seven in the UK and you might think that the Japanese are a nation of slackers. Of course nothing could be further from the truth, since it takes a public holiday to encourage Japan’s hardworking population to take a break.
In Japan, public holidays have a name and a purpose. The second Monday in January is Coming of Age Day – a day of celebration for everyone who will reach the age of 20 during the coming year. Sports Day in October was introduced to commemorate the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 and is a day for physical exertion across the country. Culture Day in November marks Japan’s cultural achievements with festivals and awards. Then there’s Greenery Day – a day to appreciate nature and plant trees. Even the Emperor’s birthday merits a public holiday on 23rd December.
One of the year’s big concentration of holidays, collectively known as “Golden Week” has just drawn to a close. With four public holidays in just over a week, many take the connecting days in between to eke out a proper rest.
Of course, one of the problems with the entire nation taking a holiday at the same time is that airports are heaving, trains and hotels booked out and roads snarled up.
This year, in time-honoured public holiday fashion, the weather was terrible and the traffic jams long. Torrential rain lashed the country and, as the great holiday exodus began, jams were soon being reported. On the busy Kanetsu expressway in Saitama the queue stretched for 55km. Gardeners were delighted as the last of the parched winter earth sprung into life turning from yellow to vibrant green.
Golden Week is a chance for Japanese to travel up and down their own country. The ancient city of Kyoto receives around 50 million visitors a year and given that even in a good year foreign tourists to Japan number fewer than 9 million, you can see just how important domestic tourism is. Finding peace and solitude in any of Kyoto’s famous temples last week was proving a challenge. At the great Buddhist temple of Kiyomizudera, there were so many visitors that the usual brisk circuit of the verdant grounds had been reduced to a snail-like shuffle.
It’s a good time for Japanese children. Apart from the Golden Week TV specials with back-to-back cartoons, Children’s Day falls at the end of the week. Everywhere for weeks before 5 May brightly coloured koi no boor, or carp-shaped streamers, flutter in the breeze. It’s a stirring sight and a traditional sign of hope that children will grow up to be healthy and strong. At play centres up and down the country, children sing the Koi no bori song.
Predictably, the weather suddenly moved to scorching once the end of the holiday was in sight. Yoyogi Park was teeming with picnickers and the usual assortment of activities from African drumming and hip hop dance practice to outdoor yoga and badminton. Over at Tokyo’s manmade beach in Odaiba, the volleyball was in full swing. The beach, with its imported sand, is a surreal sight as toddlers paddle against an urban backdrop of the Rainbow Bridge and the industrial machinery of Tokyo Bay.
Once Golden Week is over, the summer seems to begin.
Realising that another holiday season – and the domestic spending it encourages – would be a welcome boost for the economy, the government looked at the calendar and realised that if they squeezed in a connecting holiday between Respect for the Aged Day and Autumnal Equinox Day, they could have another Golden Week. So, the traffic jams and overflowing hotels happens all over again in September, except this time it’s called Silver Week.